When one thinks of music in the Soviet Union, the first thing to come to mind might be the Red Army Choir belting out the national anthem. Or it might be Tro Lo Lo Man, also known as Eduard Khil, the 1970’s crooner who became a smash web hit both at home and abroad last year as an internet meme.
However, the man who was arguably the biggest rock/pop star of the USSR is still little known in the west. Today marks what would have been the 49th birthday of Viktor Robertovich Tsoi, frontman for 80’s rock band Kino. Born in Leningrad on June 21st, 1962, Tsoi rose to fame in the early 80’s writing songs about love, loafing and dissatisfaction in the Brezhnev era. In the mid-80’s his music turned from apathetic to political, giving a voice to a new generation thirsting for change. He died tragically in a car accident in Lithuania in 1990, but as often happens with young musicians, his early death only increased his reputation as a once in a generation artist.
Viktor Tsoi has a strong connection to Kazakhstan. His father was an ethnic Korean from the southern city of Kyzylorda, a place known for its brutal climate, salty earth and being ‘the most Kazakh place on earth’ (I can attest to this: when I visited in 2008 even the Russians there spoke Kazakh!). Tsoi’s father wasn’t unusual in this respect: the city is full of the descendants of the thousands of Koreans forcibly relocated by Stalin away from their home in the Russian far east in the 1930’s.
Tsoi also starred in the classic perestroika era film Igla (Needle), shot in Alma-Ata and out by the Aral Sea in 1987. For you Russian speakers the entire film is available on YouTube, along with most of the Kino catalog and some great live stuff (but don’t be scared off: you don’t need to speak any Russian to enjoy Kino’s music.)
The collapse of the USSR shortly after his death cemented Tsoi as perhaps the ultimate Soviet rock icon. Tsoi belonged, and belongs, not just to Russia but to the entire former Soviet Union. Today he remains hugely popular among the current generation of young people born after his death; and ‘Цой жив!’ (Tsoi lives!) can still be seen freshly scrawled upon elevators and подъезды from Vladivostok to Vilnius.
In honor of his birthday I leave you with the classic Kino anthem Peremen (Changes), in a clip from Tsoi’s final concert in June 1990 at the Luzhniki Olympic Stadium in Moscow.
Перемен! – требуют наши сердца.
Перемен! – требуют наши глаза.
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах,
И в пульсации вен:
Мы ждем перемен!”
Our hearts demand changes!
Our eyes demand changes!
In our laughter, in out tears,
And in the pulsing of our veins-
We are waiting for change.*
(*For more information on Tsoi and Kino check out this great thesis written by David Michael Parker Akiyoshi. The translation here is his.)